The decision to provide heavy tanks to Ukraine in significant numbers constitutes a step change in western military support for Ukraine. For the first time, western countries are providing substantial offensive capabilities to support a major campaign to regain lost territory.
The decision has been long in coming. But for some months, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz resisted the decision to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Even the Nato meeting held at the Ramstein US air base in Germany on January 20 to discuss the issue ended without a decision, much to the frustration of Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and some of Kyiv’s other western allies.
In addition to a general fear of escalation, there was much public discussion of Germany’s aversion to involvement in armed conflict (understandable given its 20th-century history) and Berlin’s hopes to rebuild relations with Moscow eventually.
But this is not the whole story. Scholz is keenly aware of Germany’s reliance on the US for its security. So he would only take such a major decision with clear US approval and – most importantly – with evidence that the US would participate in a similar deal to supply its own tanks. Until this week the US was adamant it wouldn’t send Abrams tanks to Ukraine, saying they were unsuited to the conditions of warfare there.
Germany’s other problem is its relatively low stocks of the Leopard 2 tanks (about 320 for all of Germany’s own defence needs down from 4,000 main battle tanks during the cold war period). Readying its existing stock for battle will take some time. But the underlying issue is that the Germans fear that if the various European states that have bought Leopard 2 tanks from Germany supply them to Ukraine, they may well opt to replace their own inventories with US equipment instead.
This would destroy a massive export market for Germany as the country exported 2,399 battle tanks between 1992 and 2010. This is already in progress in fact as Poland announced the purchase of 116 M1A1 Abrams tanks with associated equipment with delivery starting this year in a deal worth $1.4 billion (£1.13 billion).
There has also inevitably been some internal German politics involved. Securing the deal took the resignation of the previous German defence minister, Christine Lambrecht – who was strongly averse to allowing the Leopards to be used in Ukraine. Her replacement, Boris Pistorius, is in favour and is backed by German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and vice chancellor, Robert Habeck.
Meanwhile in Washington, intense diplomatic activity by US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin persuaded the president Joe Biden to commit to sending 31 Abrams M1 battle tanks to Ukraine. This was partly a leverage to persuade Germany to change its mind on sending its Leopards. Initially Germany will provide 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks from its inventory, with the goal of eventually providing 112 overall.
Germany will deliver the most modern version of the Leopard 2 which is deemed the most capable tank in the modern world except for the US M1 Abrams. Poland has pledged another 14 and Norway will send spare parts and up to eight units. Between them, different European countries have a total of about 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks. Ukraine is seeking 300 tanks overall – so far 105 have been pledged for delivery in the next few months.
The three types of tanks that Ukraine will receive each require very different training, with different supply chains for maintenance and operations. Once integrated these tanks will combine with other top-of-the-range modern fighting machines supplied by western allies to make for a formidable armoured force.
Meanwhile, the issue of supplying aircraft is once again under discussion. Ukraine is pushing for the supply of F-16 fighter jets and manufacturer Lockheed Martin has announced it is stepping up production. This looks to be the next big issue on the agenda. The Netherlands has declared it is willing to supply F-16s if requested and other European countries are exploring the idea of supplying Kyiv with their existing stocks of Soviet-era aircraft in return for being restocked with the US F-16.
Military experts are dubious however, favouring mobile, ground-based air defences over expensive, fixed-wing aircraft and insisting that any attempt by Ukraine to gain air superiority would be a costly mistake.
Washington has also made it clear that Ukraine needs to change its operational tactics. Senior US defence and national security officials met with Zelensky to suggest ways to shift from drawn-out attritional battles, such as the one being played out at enormous cost in men and munitions in Bakhnut in the Donbas region, to a much more rapid mechanised warfare of the sort that brought Ukraine success in its autumn counteroffensives.
Deliveries will take months
Supplying tanks capable of that type of rapid manoeuvre warfare is designed to help Ukraine make that shift. The problem is that it is uncertain when the new armoured brigades will be available. Even the first deliveries will take several months – and the US tanks will probably not arrive until the autumn.
So a shift in strategy may not be feasible in time for a spring offensive – Washington now seem resigned at the prospect of an extended conflict.
The Kremlin downplayed the decision to send heavy tanks to Ukraine as a “losing scheme” – although the Russian ambassador to Germany Sergey Nechaev sounded a warning note, condemning the German decision as “highly dangerous” and stating it “takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation”.
Despite this defiant note, Russia’s war planners will be aware that their positions in Ukraine will come under increased pressure in coming months. They will not have missed the message that Nato’s initial reluctance to use its considerable military assets to support Ukraine is ebbing away – and Russia cannot count on western war weariness to turn the tide in its favour.